Enamelling: Fabergé best kept secret

today8 May 2022

Written by: Claudia Carletti


Speakers: Fondation Fabergé – Dr. Bernard Ivaldi, Alexandra Blin Kourbatoff


The art of enamel in Russia is intricately tied to the ancient cultural traditions of the Byzantine Empire, which spread to the territory of Egypt, France, and Italy, becoming the foundation of the technical traditions of enamel art in these countries.


Already in the 4th century BC, the Tauric Peninsula was known for golden jewelry produced by artful Greek masters, using filigree and cloisonné techniques. The techniques of the Greeks were inherited and applied at the end of the 19th century by the master artisans of Fabergé, earning golden medals for their brand at the 1882 All-Russia Exhibition in Moscow and the Nuremberg Exposition of 1885.


In contemporary times, many things have been written on enamelling. People today understand the techniques, where to find supplies, and there’s been a huge progress in the chemistry and physics. A great source for information on the techniques of enamelling is Frants Birbaum’s diary. Frants Birbaum was the chief master of the Fabergé factory after the death of Carl’s brother Agathon in 1895. And Frants started giving conferences on how to produce and make enamels. Most of his diary was recovered and is actually published in a book called “Fabergé”, a comprehensive reference book, which the Fondation Fabergé published several years ago.


Enamel is nothing but a mass of transparent matter, glass. Various metal oxides, added to this mass, give it different colours and, where necessary, land it opacity. Enamels can be transparent or opaque (non- transparent).


For the processes of their use on metal, enamels can be divided into the following five categories: the cloisonné, the champlevé (on a hollowed-out surface), the plique-à-jour (perforated stained glass), the bas-relief and the painted on iron and other metals.


A difference between cloisonné and champlevé enamel lies in the fact that in the first case use is made of partitions of short rows of soft metal (gold or silver) fixed to the smooth surface or the sides of the article by means of soldering.


In the second case, the surfaces to be filled with enamel are hollowed into the plaquette itself or into the object by means of instruments.Perforated enamel (plique-à-jour) differs from the first two types in that there is no metal base, and the enamel plays the part of stained glass. When it is in bas-relief metal ornaments or very low relief figures appear under the enamel. The difference lies in the layers of enamel, which make some parts of the bas-relief deeper than others, making them stand out.



One example is a 1902 clover egg, which was presented by Tzar Nicholas II to his wife Alexandra Feodorovna. And on the invoice which was retrieved from the archives of the Soviet Union, it says rubies and rose-cut diamonds with a large four-leaf Clover, twenty-three diamonds, rose-cut diamonds and four miniatures. This Clover Egg is now in the Kremlin Armoury Museum, in Moscow. This egg was invoiced for less than 6000 rubles at the time. And was recently estimated at about $50 million!


In ancient times, Egyptians, Persians and Etruscans already knew enamel. Unlike the technique applied later, the Egyptians used enamel in the same way as mosaic – they cut out small pieces of a given shape, dimensioned and fixed them in already prepared partitions, in a cloisonné style. Enamel just played a part similar to that of precious stones.


From the 6th century A.D., enamel may be found in Byzantine gold objects, using the cloisonné method exclusively. The best-preserved examples of this enamel appear in Russia in the Zvenigorod and Botkin collections, and consist of representations of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, the Evangelists, and various Saints. The technique used in these works is so advanced that it astonishes the best of contemporary enamellers.


From Byzantium, cloisonné enamel spread westward to France, Germany and Italy, where it was used from the 9th to the 12th century A.D.. Owing to its high cost, it was used only in small gold objects. During that period, a number of churches increased greatly in the West and the demand for liturgical objects necessitated seeking cheaper materials.


The cloisonné process, suitable for gold and silver, became very difficult to use on copper, owing to the hardness of that metal: the partitions were difficult to solder and to fashion into curves. For this reason, champlevé enamel came to replace cloisonné and transparent enamel to lose its preponderance over the opaque. The largest producers of champlevé enamels worked in the town of Limoges, in France.


The champlevé enamelling process yields a wide variety of results, according to the way in which the design is enamelled. The advantage of this process over cloisonné lies in having a contour which can be enlarged or reduced according to the design, thus making the method more expensive.


France provided the largest contingent of talented enamellers: the names of Grandhomme, Thesmar, Tourette, Hirtz, Lalique, Feuillâtre and Houillon are world-wide famous. In England, Fischer is known for his painted enamels, and in Switzerland Itten is renowned for his decorative work. At the time there were many exchanges between the workshops of Fabergé, for example, and those of Lalique and Cartier. For example, some of the masters were sent to France to work with Lalique. On the other hand, Cartier would order pieces to Fabergé which would be sent to France and branded Cartier.


Enamelled jewellery has a long and illustrious history. The richness and precision of the multicoloured enamels, the delicacy of the gem enhancement with the realistic beauty of the portrait make this an outstanding enamelled jewel. Enamels and micro mosaics were often the chosen mediums for Egyptian Revival Style jewels in the 19th century.


Several events fostered the fascination of the French people for the Egyptian Revival Style in the 19th century. The French had been interested in Egypt since Napoleon’s conquest. Archaeological discoveries by Auguste Marriotte in the 1860s with crates of artifacts shipped back to the Louvre further piqued interest. The Suez Canal was finally completed with much fanfare in 1867. Jewels in the Egyptian Revival Style featuring lotus flower and pharaonic motifs in red, green and blue opaque enamels aroused enthusiastic interest in the theatrically spectacular displays in the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1867.


Franz Peter Birbaum (his Swiss German name at birth) started working for the House of Fabergé as a draughtsman and designer in 1893. He was rapidly promoted chief draughtsman, designer and miniature painter on enamel after the death of Carl Fabergé’s brother Agathon in 1895. He was responsible for more than half of the 54 Imperial Easter eggs.


He came back to Switzerland right after the Bolshevik revolution, with the help of the Swiss Red Cross. Once back home, he started writing on his diary of how to proceed in order to mix colours, to do the painting on enamels and obtain the desired colours.


His diary is extremely precise and that is the title of this talk, “Enamelling – Fabergé best kept secret”. In other words, generations of enamellers later, and with painters starting using Birbaum’s memoirs that have been published, these secrets are known today. However, at the time, the process was well guarded.


So, this Birbaum’s diary is really a wealth of knowledge which was transferred from the year 1920 until he died. Unfortunately, he never went back to Russia, and he could never start the new manufacture that he was dreaming of. But his legacy remains to this days in the masterpieces he designed and produced for the House of Fabergé.


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